Honors College Director 'Dr. J' says goodbye to program he helped build
On the windows outside the Frederik Meijer Honors College Office at Grand Valley State University, first-year students within the program write down on a cloud-shaped piece of paper what their dreams for the future are. These clouds are given to those students when they graduate as a memento of what they thought as optimistic, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshmen they would be doing in four years.
While the students may be the only ones explicitly writing down their aspirations like this, the faculty and staff at the Honors College have their own visions for the program, too.
Jeff Chamberlain, director of the Honors College, said his dream was to see the program become a world-class honors college that was beneficial for students.
“I would say I’ve managed about 85 to 90 percent of it,” Chamberlain said. “It’s never 100 percent. Your dreams have to be bigger than you're able to do. My goals, my dreams, are probably a little bit bigger than I could have accomplished. I don’t have any regrets in that regard.”
After the winter 2017 semester, Chamberlain will be leaving for Florida as he becomes the dean of the growing Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida after 10 years of working and creating lifelong connections and friendships at GVSU.
Moving from a private college with a student body of roughly 1,400 students to a public institution with more than 23,000 students would be a huge jump for anybody. And taking over an honors college with an enrollment almost the same size of the previous college’s entire student body would be an especially daunting task.
But that didn’t stop Chamberlain as he began to build up the honors program when he came to GVSU in 2007.
And now, after 10 years with GVSU, the Honors College director affectionately known by students, faculty and staff as “Dr. J,” will be leaving for another honors college down in Florida, a decision that did not come easily.
“There’s absolutely nothing about the students or the opportunities at Grand Valley that I would want to leave for,” Chamberlain said. “My connections with the students, being able to see these students have every opportunity in the world and be able to do such amazing things, that’s hard to leave. That’s really hard to leave.”
His decision comes after he found himself plateaued, in a sense, at GVSU. Since coming here, Chamberlain has been able to build up the Honors College to what it is today, and that’s something he’s enjoyed doing.
The self-proclaimed builder doesn’t see himself being able to do much more at GVSU but believes the next person to come in can build off his momentum and the momentum that is at GVSU both now and when he originally came to the university. This same momentum is what attracted him to UNF’s Honors College.
“I’ve kinda plateaued at Grand Valley,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t see, as things are, I don’t see that I can take them to another level. I think somebody coming after me can, (but) I just feel like right now I’m doing more maintaining than I am building.”
During his time at GVSU, Chamberlain helped build up the Honors College from an enrollment of 900 students in the fall of 2007 to roughly 1,800 students in the fall of 2016. He also started new programs within the Honors College that helped bolster student success and offer unique opportunities, such as the option for honors students to spend a year abroad instead of taking the required sequence.
Chamberlain also had a major hand in how the Frederik Meijer Honors College Service-Learning Endowment, which the college received in the fall of 2008, would be cut up and used in the honors department. He used this task to help directly benefit students, faculty and staff at the Honors College by hiring on more full-time professors and advisers for honors students who needed help within the program.
Perhaps what Chamberlain is best known for is commitment to students at GVSU. Students and colleagues alike remark how dedicated he is to helping students succeed and making sure they are doing the best they can.
Chamberlain recounted the times he’s helped student both on campus and off.
“There have been times when, you know, we had an episode or something happened with a student and I’ve driven across the state or I’ve done things to help students,” Chamberlain said. “When you can really help somebody, when you’re even comforting makes a difference.”
This commitment has not gone unnoticed. Jonathan White, professor of interdisciplinary studies in the Honors College and a friend of Chamberlain, praised Chamberlain’s commitment to students.
“I don’t think anybody understands the amount of time he spends at the Honors College,” White said. “He is here late, he is here early, he is always here for students. He is one of the most student-centered professors I have ever worked with.”
The announcement of Chamberlain's departure took many people off guard and left many with questions about the future of the Honors College. White is sad to see him leave but understands why he is.
“I am extremely happy for him because he has earned the right to run an autonomous college and he has earned the right to be a dean,” White said. “He is going to put the University of North Florida on the map. On a personal level, it saddens me to lose a colleague, a friend and the best boss I’ve ever had.”
Although he will be missed by many, Chamberlain’s legacy will long be remembered by those at the Honors College, as well as by individuals across GVSU’s campuses. The next “cloud” message Chamberlain writes will be one that strengthens another Honors College, the same way he did GVSU’s.
“There are a lot of pieces of (leaving GVSU) that are really difficult,” Chamberlain said. “But, you got to make a break sometime.”